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Therapy & Horsemanship

Understanding relationships, exploring differences,and identifying needs.

With Elisse Miki and Josh Nichol

Is there a relationship between therapy and horsemanship? Do you feel that these two things work synchronistically together or potentially against each other? Do you know how to spot the difference in release during training versus therapy? How do you know if your horse needs a trainer or a therapist? Can you identify the difference in needs?

As a human and equine therapist, these are questions that have plagued my mind and instilled a strong desire to explore and share what I have come to know on the relationship between therapy and horsemanship. Examining how the behaviours that occur during each type of session may appear similar at times but also exploring where there are major differences. I am most certainly not a trainer, nor is my profession based in horsemanship, but there is one thing I have come to realize; an undeniable relationship exists between the two.

Weaving these two aspects as part of a holistic approach to equine care is an underrated area right now in the horse industry. It is for this reason, I attempt to explain my thoughts, considerations, science, and theories on the topic.

Understanding the differences in needs for each type of session and knowing which one your horse is calling for is a complex task, but my goal is to provide some clarity on the topic from my perspective as a therapist and with the help of Josh Nichol from the training perspective.

Asking For Yield: Is This The Same In Therapy and Horsemanship?

Often when I go to see horses, one of the most common concerns from the owner is that their horse won't stand still or is demonstrating aversive behaviours towards the movement and palpation assessment. From a horsemanship perspective, it can be understood that we typically want our horses to feel comfortable standing with us and accepting or yielding to touch across their bodies. As horse owners and therapists, we find peace in creating calm interactions with our horses. While I understand the position on asking the horse to soften, yield, or stand quietly during treatment and palpation it may not fall fully within the therapeutic approach.

If the horse is asked to yield, soften, or stand stationary while I propose a question to their body we risk removing the authentic feedback that these questions may seemingly provoke. Much like many accomplished trainers teach on energetic intention with the horse such is my philosophy with respect to the therapy. My intention in assessment, palpation, and treatment is to propose or induce a movement, perhaps manipulate an area, or apply a specific technique to the body and then I wait to see what the body says. Sometimes that means the horse will move their head away, other times they may lean into relaxation, and more often than not the feet will move. But the take home message is that it doesn't always look a certain way and it's not always a picturesque experience.

The reason for this is that being in pain can feel like internal catastrophe. If you have ever personally torn a muscle, sprained an ankle, broken a bone, or experienced a pinched nerve, you will understand how pain can be utterly and completely dreadful. Even intolerable at times.

Commonly during assessment and testing my human patients will present with reflexive guarding or verbalize pain in an area but I do not restrict their movement as this is important feedback to me as a therapist. This then raises the question, why would we restrict our horses from providing us the same level of feedback.

Moreover, if you have ever had a therapeutic treatment on yourself you will likely appreciate that there may be discomfort in reaching towards the end goal which requires release in the form of movement, such as a long and deep exhale or an active contraction of the area being worked.

For these reasons, I prefer to work with horses in a large space, with a loose halter, and a long lead rope in order to allow for freedom of movement and communication within the space.

Treatment Vs Training: How Does Communication Differ?

As opposed to my human clients, I cannot establish a verbal pain scale with the horses so I must read movements objectively, interpret body communication, and rely heavily on palpatory skills to understand what the tissues are expressing to me. My work is to interpret the feedback from the horse alongside what is palpated and determine what the tissues are communicating. In my opinion, the difference in goals of therapy vary largely from what most trainers are trying to accomplish. Therapists tend to ask questions with the desire to receive authentic feedback without expectation around the response whereas trainers may often be seeking to address, alter, or support a certain behaviour with an intended expectation of result.

It is important to underscore the energetic difference in intention of a therapist coming to the horse with the work versus a trainer coming to work with the horse. My entire mind, body, and heart are saying "tell me what hurts". I am essentially asking the horse to give me this feedback through their body communications. My motivation for approaching treatment in this manner is to give the horse an opportunity to have a voice, a say, an opinion, and feel that this feedback is received. So often horses are not given this opportunity in their interactions with humans.

My therapeutic philosophy dictates that we must respect the answer the client provides us whether we agree with it or not. For me, this is why I see therapy as not only science but also art. Experienced therapists know when to stay in an area and when to leave, but it is the combining of what is seen objectively, what is felt physically, and allowing for a strong sense of guided intuition that brings the greatest successes. This is one skill I will likely spend the rest of my time on earth refining as there is no limit to approaching the body with this understanding.

Frequently I think about my time spent during human licensing around learning boundaries and consent practices. In human practice, it would be considered negligent to put hands upon a client body to palpate or apply therapeutic techniques without first methodically and thoroughly explaining what areas will be worked on, which techniques will be applied and most importantly what the goal of treatment is. Human therapists are also required to provide the client a verbal list of possible positive and negative outcomes as a result of the treatment. This procedure is the essence of informed consent. But how often do we give the horses this same respect and dignity over their own bodies.

In examining these differences in factors that are present in treatment versus training we may begin to see where the goals of each may feel binary. But do they need to be autonomous or is there a way to deliver training that supports treatment and treatment that supports training.

What If My Horse Won't Stand Still?

Of course, it is not ideal if our horses are uneasy to a point that receiving assessment and treatment is not possible but this is where I see horsemanship and training styles becoming an integral piece of the bigger therapeutic picture. In my experience, a relational based horsemanship approach will seek to determine root cause of this type of behaviour and empower the horse and human to work through these presentations in harmony rather than against them through dominance.

In Josh Nichol's words, this approach describes that the feel we get from the lead rope provides us a mental picture of the horse's experience. This can be felt by the energy that comes back to us through the rope when we pick it up. The state of mind of the horse can resemble an aura of energy around the muscles and how they feel is held there. A feel in the lead rope should cause a horse to relax and feel safe mentally, which in turn allows their bodies to be more open and accepting of training or therapy. By avoiding inhibition of movement or flow of the body, the mind may be released and this can have a dramatic effect on the mental and physical state of the horse. In some cases, this could even look like they are no longer in pain or discomfort because the physiology of the muscles are no longer in a guarded state. Posing the question further, does my horse need therapy or horsemanship.

If we can approach our horsemanship from this perspective we can both assist and assess the horse further in order to find a balance of good training that supports therapy. Understanding how to spot the difference in needs of training versus therapy can be challenging in the beginning. If we can start to feel what the horse is communicating through the lead rope and instil confidence around controlling pressure through a relational style of horsemanship versus dominance this will enable the horse to receive the work (if indicated) and the therapeutic benefits will be more likely to sustain over the long term.

Regularly, I see the work of therapists inhibited following the session if the horse goes back into a sympathetically driven space at the hands of the owner, trainer, or in their living environment. If we want therapy to be effective, we need to promote a calm mind in the horse which is where horsemanship may assist us to retain the value of the treatments.

Behavioural Issues: Physical or Mental?

There are undoubtedly many factors that would need to be evaluated in order to make a clear determination but understanding how to clinically evaluate signs and symptoms is a great skill to begin fostering. A general rule of thumb in the therapeutic approach is that anatomy governs physiology. What this means is that anatomical structure will determine the ability of this structure to function. If the anatomy is perturbed, such as a vertebra out of alignment the function of this area will be compromised. The blood vessels and nerves exiting and surrounding this segment, as well as the muscles and organs that supply the area, will too be compromised. The vertebra that is out of alignment (anatomy) will affect the function (physiology) of the area.

Often behaviours presenting as mental reservations are merely the expression of a physical root cause stemming from pain or discomfort. In many cases, the horse is labeled as having a behavioural issue or a "bad attitude" but how do we know if the horse has physiological restrictions versus psychological concerns around a certain request. This type of situation is usually when I am called out to assess and treat the horse as most horse owners begin to recognize that there is perhaps something deeper going on.

A thorough assessment of both mind (horsemanship) and body (therapy) can illuminate areas of dysfunction that may otherwise be misunderstood. This is because physiology never lies. If we are looking for answers within the tissues, we will find that the presentation is quite clear. Bodies are designed to function through a multitude of complex interactions between systems but when there is dysfunction the body will express this through pathological presentation. An educated evaluation governed by knowledge of anatomy and physiology will assure you the truth in the statement; the body never lies.

An Example

A very simple example I give to describe how I evaluate proposed "behavioural issues" is based around the physiology of joints. Almost every joint in the body is held together by a joint capsule which is made up of dense fibrous collagen. The purpose of the capsule is to provide nutrition to the joint and allow planes of movement within a certain range only. If you have ever sprained your ankle, you might remember the sensation of it rolling over and going in and out of a range of motion. Followed by intense pain. The reason your ankle joint didn't completely disassociate is due to this capsule working hard to keep these bones articulated. The reason for the intense pain is the tearing of the capsule fibres and all the associated ligaments and musculature around the joint. Following a tear the body will lay down extreme amounts of collagen - what we know as "scar tissue" in order to best repair the site. This is great in the short term but not so great in the long term as scar tissue is very dense and highly immovable. If a joint has suffered such an injury the ranges of motion will be affected and the joint will not be able to move freely on all planes of movement or will move too freely from lack of stability elsewhere.

If a joint structure (anatomy) is damaged, the function (physiology) of the joint will be affected which may show up as seemingly unwilling behaviour. If a horse has a joint that is not able to move freely, we will see aversive behaviour in response to the movements that provoke pain or discomfort in the joint. There are many injuries where the body is not able to tolerate certain movements and where we may see feedback such as head raising, backing up, rearing, side stepping, and pretty much any sort of aversive behaviour. This "behaviour" is actually not such, the issue is that the horse is experiencing pain or discomfort with the request to complete the movement.

As part of my assessment, when I see this type of feedback I will check the joints in all planes of movement passively to feel if there are any scar tissue like restrictions and this helps me to determine if there are existing mobility issues making such movements difficult or near impossible.

Are My Horse's Issues Physical or Mental? Or a combination of both (most likely)

Questions you can ask yourself if you suspect physical issues with your horse:

  • What are the behaviours my horse is showing?

  • Do these behaviours present both ridden and on the ground?

  • Are these behaviours systematic or erratic?

  • What was the onset of these behaviours?

  • Are there specific movements that seem difficult for your horse to achieve?

  • Can your horse achieve these movements at liberty or while out in the field?

  • Has there been a change in your horse's life? (tack, exercise regiment, living environment, feed, etc)

  • Does your horse have any known pre-existing injuries?

Questions you can ask yourself if you suspect training (mental) issues with your horse:

  • What energy is in your body when you are asking a question?

  • Are you tense, worried, anxious?

  • When you connect with your lead rope what do you feel?

  • When you connect with your lead rope do you see calming signals?

  • When you relax do you feel them change?

In answering these questions, we move one step closer to determining the root cause of the behaviour and knowing if your horse would benefit from a relational approach to horsemanship, a therapy session, or both.

Horse Generated Release Vs Human Generated Release

The majority of my visceral techniques actually require that the horse determine the level of pressure as well as choose the release themselves by moving off the fulcrum I provide. One of the main reasons for this is because we are trying to limit recoil. Recoil refers to the retraction and/or deflation of elastin fibres present in most tissues. This is a physiological response to pressure that exceeds the tissues resting tone. Recoil can prevent sustainable changes to tissue therefore in order to limit this reflexive response my goal is to engage the nervous system with an active contraction which may reduce or inhibit the recoil response. As neurons fire to actively cause contraction, the brain may understand and register this length change over a reflexive response that is typically only registered in the spinal cord. The latter may send the tissues into spasm or recurring tension cycles.

When seeking to apply techniques with the goal of horse generated release there is a sense of sinking into the depth of tissue we wish to access then determining the exact axis of ease of this tissue (all structures in the body rotate along and around various axes). Once this culmination of stacking axes into ease has been established the force stays the same and the horse will determine the rest. And they always do. Yet another innate wisdom of the horse that I only learned when I began my studies in osteopathy. Understandably, this concept may be hard to picture without a visual demonstration so I will leave it at that and propose we explore this topic further in the future.

In my experience, a horse that is provided the ability to determine therapeutic pressure, demonstrates differences in the type of release we will see. Horse generated release seeks to work in harmony with the nervous system, more specifically the motor control system while accessing the parasympathetic branches. Human generated release such as a simple pressure-release in horsemanship appears to engage the opposite even though it may feel similar. Standard pressure-release may send the horse to the edge of sympathetic state whereas horse generated release seeks to stay within the parasympathetic state. Horse generated release typically allows the horse to enter into an almost trancelike state for the moment in time. There is a softness to the eyes and the tone of the body that is coming from within. A more deeply nuanced sensation over a singular lick and chew. This state can be felt by those around the horse if we are able to tune into this frequency by presence of our own mind and body in the moment.


In my experience, many ridden horses exhibit some form of physical issue within the spine and or the appendicular skeleton which may be compounded by their mental response to pain. Physiologically speaking, the horse's spinal column isn't designed well for weight bearing directly through the vertical axis of each segment. Furthermore, their lower legs are predominantly hinge joints which means they lack functionality for repetitive movements in circular patterns. As such these areas are at high risk for developing repetitive strain injuries which can create painful and dysfunctional movement patterns. These ingredients are the perfect recipe for producing a pain-dysfunction cycle which is when horse owners typically notice behaviours coming to the forefront of interaction.

On the flip side, horses lacking education or calmness of mind on how to process or manage pressure may present similarly to a pain-dysfunction cycle which is when it may become confusing for the horse owner.

Therefore, learning how to have a functional conversation based on understanding feedback and feeling what your horse is communicating through the lead rope, horse owners and therapists may more easily determine the root cause of issues. Thus, attempting to reveal the answer to the question, does my horse need therapy or horsemanship.


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